The Need for Interdisciplinary Education
To the Faculty Newsletter:
Having just departed from the Institute faculty meeting, I find myself inspired to write in regard to the discussion generated by the CUP [Committee on the Undergraduate Program] proposal for a change to the HASS requirement of the GIRs. While there are some issues of disagreement amongst us about the best ways to promote our common educational goals, what stood out for me as the most salient feature of the discussion was the impassioned defense I heard of the value of a liberal education, and not just “even” at MIT, but especially at MIT.
I was particularly pleased to hear Prof. Lechtman’s plea for us to be at the forefront of interdisciplinary education, although I do not share her assessment of what she fears is the current proposal’s failure to promote innovation in this regard. Let me explain by way of the example I know best, drawn from my own teaching experience, although I am hardly the only example one might give.
I am by training an economic historian, with graduate degrees in both disciplines. In addition to my regular connections to these two fields, I have taught in Women’s and Gender Studies, guest lectured for colleagues in Literature and Theater Arts, co-taught a seminar in social science research methods for Sloan and Engineering Systems Design doctoral students, and, most recently, co-taught a cohort of engineers for the MIT-Portugal program. Like Prof. Lechtman, I am a true believer, and extremely grateful that MIT has historically made space for people like us whose feet are in more than one door.
My current HASS-d subject, a comparative history of the medieval economy, is destined, I think, for a home in what would be the new Social Science category if the GIR reform moves forward. My course is organized around a central question: “How does an economic and cultural backwater like Europe come to dominate the global economy?” But it has a shadow question as well, which is: “Why isn’t the whole world developed?” These are clearly and fundamentally concerns of the social sciences and I don’t anticipate opposition to my category allocation. However, this course also relies heavily on content and skills that more properly belong to both the arts and the humanities. Source material is limited for the early Middle Ages, so we must be creative. I have students read selections from hagiographies (Saint’s Lives) to let them practice ferreting out insights into economic and social life from documents never intended for that purpose. This requires that they understand the genre itself; how, why, and by whom such narratives were produced, what features are likely to be stylized across the genre, and what are likely to yield “true” historical information. These reading skills are, of course, at the core of the humanistic enterprise. This class also features a unit on the Gothic cathedral building movement of the High Middle Ages. My particular interest is in how essentially agrarian economies with relatively low crop yields came to build such magnificent and enduring monuments. But the full weight of this question can only be appreciated if the buildings themselves are first appreciated – as feats of geometric design and engineering, as aesthetic masterpieces, and as deeply pious expressions of faith in a universal God.
My belief that the economy and the quality of artistic production are linked finds yet another example in my course. Consider the much-appreciated oeuvre of the Dutch Masters of Holland’s so-called “golden age.”
I have yet to encounter a student who has never heard of Rembrandt or Vermeer. What our students are unlikely to know is that there were literally millions of paintings produced in the middle decades of the seventeenth century in and around the urban core of the Dutch Republic, the vast majority of which are no longer extant, and deservedly so. This incredible volume of (mostly cheap and uninspired) paintings was produced to meet the growing consumer demand for household decoration by a newly emergent middle class. The masterpieces we commemorate in collections around the world today are merely the very top of what was in fact a mass production industry. Quality emerged then out of quantity, just as the Gothic achievement emerged out of a burgeoning urban economy based on something as prosaic as woolen textile production.
The point of this teaching exercise is not to belittle the singular achievements of the master builders of Chartres, or of Rembrandt and Vermeer, that is to say, to discount creative genius. Rather, my point is precisely the opposite – to remind our students of the tragedy of potential genius so often buried by poverty.
Armed with the knowledge that it takes moments of broad societal opportunity for genius to fully emerge, it is my hope that our students will go out into the world with a changed sense of purpose.
Some of them will be motivated to build, others to create works of art, yet others to study more history to understand better the sources of the blessed moments of cultural efflorescence (or perhaps just as importantly to comprehend what it is that kills them). Some of our students will be stirred up to take political action and yet others to pursue the study and practice of poverty eradication, as doctors, economists, policy wonks, or writers. As an educator I’m not at all fussy which of these tacks they decide to take, so long as they come to appreciate what is at stake for all of us. And they will need the arts, humanities, and social sciences together (along with their scientific and technical knowledge and problem-solving skills) to be successful in these various endeavors.
Dividing the HASS curriculum broadly into the (admittedly traditional) categories of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences won’t stifle this kind of learning, but uninspired classrooms easily could. As long as we have a system in place whose rules require copious management on the part of faculty, and which slots students reluctantly into classes that just happen to fit all of the relevant constraints, we put at risk the kind of teaching we really want to do.
Anne EC McCants